16 March 2010

Do You Want to Be Well? (Reprised)

Today's Gospel is one of those intensely intriguing ones where the reader plays a huge part in determining what actually happens in the story (because the story is not a matter merely of the past; the Gospel writer very much WANTS it to draw us in as well). I once remarked in an earlier blog entry that some of Jesus' parables are rather like Thematic Apperception Tests, and today's Gospel strikes me very much that way --- there is much left undefined or ambiguous, lots of room for projection, for implicating ourselves in the story and interpreting the questions, responses, followup behavior, etc. For those unfamiliar with the TAT, this is a psychological test often given to candidates for religious life, seminary and priestly ordination, etc. During the test the client is shown a series of pen and ink drawings, ordinarily a series of ambiguous pictures, and asked to tell the stories of the characters and scenes depicted there. S/he is asked to characterize the situation in each drawing, narrate how it came to be, and also give the story some sort of an ending. It is quite an enjoyable test UNTIL one realizes that the ONLY thing exposed for the tester is the inner and psychological life of the client!!! THAT is laid bare with incredible clarity! Well, today's gospel reading can function that way for us today, and would be wonderful for lectio.

By way of summary, several things struck me right away. First, the reference to multitudes of sick, crippled, etc, in the temple area, but somehow also separated from the very life of the Temple. Second, Jesus' question to the one man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (a whole generation is signified here): "Do you want to be well?" --- certainly an intimate question which also retains complete respect for the man's freedom and innate dignity. Thirdly, the man's not-so-direct answer: "I have no one to put me in the water, and before I can get there, someone else has already entered." Fourthly, there is the exchange between Temple officials and the healed man who is walking and carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Both sides of this exchange are interesting: the officials' for their blindness and lack of priorities (legalism), and then for their focused hostility, and the response of the healed man who says he does not know who healed him or commanded him to take up his mat. And fifthly, after meeting Jesus again later on, and being challenged by him to not fall into sin so that something worse than paralysis befalls him, the now-healed man runs back to Temple officials to inform them that it was Jesus who healed him on the Sabbath!

The reference to multitudes of sick and crippled underscored for me a sense I already had, namely, that this gospel addressed all of us as sick or crippled in some way. When coupled with Jesus' very direct question, "Do you want to be well?" I think only a person who has never realized how it is we each come to terms with our various forms of unwellness, how we collude with them, struggle against them, accommodate them, and eventually accept them as more or less natural, would think Jesus' question a strange or completely obvious one. Afterall, after 38 years of illness most of us would have built our lives around the illness in some way which allows us a more or less comfortable accommodation to its limitations and demands --- even if this process is never perfect! To get well after 38 years of illness is no less a dramatic change than becoming seriously ill in the first place. Physical ailments are one thing, and they typify all the various ways a person can come to terms with something that is not natural or fully human --- and accommodate these things we certainly do!! But during Lent, the focus is more on our spiritual illness or lack of wellbeing, and there is nothing obvious about the answer to the question, "Do you want to be well?" Indeed oftentimes we have ignored the illness and have no awareness healing is necessary, much less at hand! Furthermore, when we ARE aware of the illness, we may not want to be healed really, just improved on a little! We don't want to commit ourselves to REAL spiritual healing. That, afterall, goes by the name of holiness, and who in the world REALLY seeks to be holy today???

I was struck by the paralyzed man's response. He does not say, "Yes, I have been waiting here for almost 4 decades. I want to be healed more than anything in the world!" Neither does he recognize that Jesus is actually the true living water and source of his healing as others have already done. His response COULD be a kind of blaming of others, or it COULD be an indictment of the religious system of his day which isolates those who are ill or crippled from the life of the Temple. It COULD be the cautious answer of one who is just now considering the idea that PERHAPS he COULD be healed and is beginning to get his mind (and heart!) around the fact that today might be the day. It COULD be the resigned response of one who has given up and knows that he will never be the first in the pool, and probably would not be healed there even if he were first! It could even be the response of a person who would like Jesus to be a little more realistic and see what the paralyzed man is really up against! (See what I mean about projecting ourselves into the story? It's terrific for uncovering our OWN hidden and not-so hidden motives and attitudes toward healing!)

Following his healing (an act of God which still requires trust and courage by the formerly paralyzed man; he still MUST pick up his mat and walk, afterall!), there is the rather chilling encounter with the temple officials. How many of us identify with their inability to see what is REALLY right in front of them, their lack of perspective, their legalistic attitudes, or their focused hostility at Jesus? And yet, how many of us have approached liturgy, for instance, with the very same mindset and condemned some breach of the rubrics when what was far more important was the healing of a fellow Christian in some major way, shape, or form we failed even to see? None of us like to see ourselves as scribes or pharisees, but all of us have a bit of closet temple-official locked inside our hearts, I am afraid! For some, it has become the primary attitude with which they approach their parish liturgy: what can I find wrong today? What breach of the Sabbath (e.g., Mass rubrics) can I point out today? How many unorthodoxies can I locate in Father's homily?" And of course, liturgy is not the only area in which such an attitude can be operative. How often do we notice someone did not follow the rules or "draw inside the lines", so to speak, in our daily lives --- while completely neglecting the fact that the person has ACHIEVED something they had been unable to perform until this point? If one walks away from this story without seeing something of themselves in this exchange between temple officials and healed paralytic, or fails to be challenged, I would be amazed!

Then there is the encounter with Jesus later in the story, after the man has been challenged by the Temple officials for carrying his mat. Jesus affirms his new condition "See, you are well!" and challenges him not to sin, lest something worse result. Does Jesus buy into some naive linkage between sin and illness? Is he asking us to do so? If so, how so? What IS the linkage REALLY? Is Jesus saying that sin can lead to worse things than physical illness? Is he reminding the man that he must commit himself to something besides his illness or his heart will be filled with something unworthy? And then there is the man's response: he runs back to the Temple officials to tell them the healer's name! Is he consciously betraying Jesus (we have been told in this and earlier readings that Jesus is staying away from crowds which are now dangerous to him)? Is he merely trying to tell the officials the simple answer to what they asked, naive of any awareness that this constitutes a betrayal of his healer (afterall, he has been on the margins of what has been happening due to his illness)? Is he trying to fit into the Temple from whence he has been ostracized for so long? Is he trying to curry favor, in other words, or simply trying to show how responsible he can be now that he is well? What illnesses still afflict him? Blindness? Insecurity? And what kind of blindness then? Ingratitude? What is it that motivates this man? Once again, we can read critically, exegetically, of course, but to some extent, I think we will have to project ourselves onto or into the text to answer many of these questions, and to really HEAR the text. So long as we are clear this is what we are doing, in this way we will learn more about ourselves than we will ever learn about the man in the story!!

For me personally, healing stories are always difficult, but this Lent, where the focus is not on chronic physical illness, but rather on all the failures in humanity which regularly plague us, Jesus' question, "Do you want to be well?" hits hard. It hits hard because it presupposes an awareness of being unwell in fundamental ways which require a healer, a messiah of Jesus' caliber and character. It presupposes the ability to say, "Yes" not only because I am unwell, but because I have colluded with the dominant culture so much that I often have remained unaware of my basic unwellness and suppose I am essentially fine --- just a "bit of a sinner" you know! And of course, it commits me to picking up my mat and walking on with it, right in the midst of all those who will be offended by the act! For a monastic and a hermit, this picking up my mat and walking with it will look differently than it will for some, but in this day and age, the call to holiness is no more acceptable for hermits than it is for businessmen or housewives, parents, professionals, etc. Do I want to be well? . . . I think the answer really must be, "Yes, no matter how much admitting and accepting my own brokenness and embracing genuine holiness scares me!" For many different reasons I may be more comfortable with a divine king than a divine physician, but this is Jesus' own question to me in this season of my life --- it is not projection on my part!! Of that I have no doubt at all. So, then, how is he speaking to you?